An interesting segment of the American boat market that’s seen a lot of growth over the last five years is rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs). Durable and amazingly seaworthy, RIBs in this size range have been used by search and rescue and military operations around the globe for decades. But it’s only recently that they’ve gained any traction in the U.S. recreational boating market.

Unlike many RIBs, the Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum is clearly designed for recreational use, from the ground up.

Unlike many RIBs, the Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum is clearly designed for recreational use, from the ground up.

The 27-foot, 11-inch long Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum is one of several big center-console RIBs in this segment, made by the inflatable manufacturer whose name is as synonymous with inflatable boats as Kleenex is with tissues. Though the company has been split into different offshoots in the past few years, its recreational brand is as strong as ever, still building some of the best RIBs on the market. So when we got an invite to run a brand-new Pro 850 on Biscayne Bay, FL, this February, we jumped at the chance.

Before we delve into the boat itself, it’s first worth considering a question a lot of prospective RIB buyers ask: “Why would I want a big RIB instead of a conventional fiberglass boat?” And it’s a good question. One big upside is that the air inside the inflatable tubes that surround a RIB provide lots of reserve buoyancy, making for an extremely stable boat. That buoyancy also allows designers to create hulls with narrower beams and steeper deadrises, that can cut through a nasty sea effortlessly. The tubes provide extra cornering stability, too, and also help absorb the shock of landing off big waves in rough seas, giving a smoother ride. Last, but not least, those tough inflatable tubes provide a durable cushion between you and anything else you might encounter on the water—including piers, docks, and other boats. And don’t worry; high-quality Hypalon tubes can last two decades or more in the sun, with proper maintenance. With all that out of the way, let’s hop aboard.

On deck the Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum has lots of similarities to traditional fiberglass center-console boats in this size range, but you’ll find the deck space feels a bit narrower than you might be used to. That’s because nearly four feet of its nine-foot, 10-inch beam are taken up by the Pro 850’s inflatable tubes. Still, we didn’t find any problems getting around on deck or going past the center console to move forward and aft. Accommodations include an under-console enclosed head, bench seating aft at the transom, twin aft-facing seats behind the helm station, two more bolstered seats at the helm, a forward console bench, and small upholstered foredeck area. There’s also a huge integral swim platform that isn’t often seen on boats of this type. The expansive hardtop above the console was especially well constructed and sturdy feeling, as was the rest of the boat.

While the Zodiac Pro 850’s basic layout is molded into the “rigid” part of the RIB, deck layout and seating is, to some degree, customizable. The Optimum model incorporates a new console and seating.

While the Zodiac Pro 850’s basic layout is molded into the “rigid” part of the RIB, deck layout and seating is, to some degree, customizable. The Optimum model incorporates a new console and seating.

We ran the Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum on Biscayne Bay on a blustery February day after a robust cold front had blown through. Winds gusting up to 25 knots created a perfect, choppy playground on which to put the Pro 850 through her paces. Packing twin 250-horsepower Yamaha F250 outboards, the maximum rated power, our review craft whizzed up to 30 mph in just less than four seconds with little notable bow rise and never felt out of control. We topped-out just over 62 MPH with the throttles laid wide open at 6050 RPM, skipping across the two-to three-foot Biscayne Bay chop with ease. The Pro 850 and its twin F250s were most efficient at around 3000 rpm and 29 MPH, where we noted a lean fuel burn of just 12.6 GPH. A 150-gallon fuel tank nets an impressive theoretical cruise range of around 340 miles.

Having a whopping 24.5 degrees of transom deadrise, the Pro 850 behaved as expected in the white-capped waters, trouncing through the waves at high speeds with a minimum of banging, while the inflatable sponsons nicely cushioned our landings off the bigger waves. Handling in the corners was impressive, to boot. The Pro 850’s sponsons act as a pivot point when she’s laid hard-over, and this bolstered our confidence enough to put the big RIB into ever-tightening turns in the snotty conditions—with no slipping or skidding at all. The Pro 850 was also easy to handle when we tied up in the breezy conditions, thanks to the Yamaha Helm Master joystick docking system.

Other than the loss of interior beam due to the tubes, the only downside we could really note about the Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum was its price. Topping out easily over $200,000 with the fitted power, options, and joystick steering, the Pro 850 left us wondering whether a traditional offshore center console might be a better value, especially for hard-core anglers.

Still, there’s a lot to love about this rugged, rigid inflatable, particularly if a boat with utility baked in that has a go-anywhere, anytime attitude sounds just about right. If you’re of a mind to simply turn the key and go—and we mean really go—the Zodiac Pro 850 Optimum might just be your ticket.

Other Choices: While there aren’t a lot of other RIBs in this class, Protector Boats builds the Targa 30, which replaces the console with a small cabin.

For more information, visit Zodiac.

See Zodiac 850 Pro Optimum listings.
Deadrise24.5 degrees
Displacement4,800 lbs
Fuel capacity150 gal.

Written by: Gary Reich
Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.